Fresh from the farm: CISA holds tasting event in Turners

The Recorder, August 31, 2017, by Richie Davis.

Cheers erupted as Chris Menegoni emerged from Great Falls Harvest’s kitchen to a standing-ovation crowd of 40 or so diners a couple of hours into this week’s sampling session.

Most had been standing, anyway, as they tried the chef’s lazy-lasagna dish, because the CISA-sponsored event was an evening of grazing and greeting farmers and other purveyors of food and drink served by the Third Street restaurant.

The lasagna, for example, was a Vermont Fresh Pasta made from Upinngil Farm’s whole-wheat flour, Vermont ricotta and various squashes from Leyden’s Dancing Bear Farm as well as Menegoni’s neighborhood garden.

Menegoni, in a short-sleeved black chef’s uniform and dark-colored cap, worked at a steady clip Monday evening, at one in a series of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture’s Local Hero restaurant events aimed at tightening the weave of farms, restaurants, value-added producers and customers.

“Symbiotic relationships, in the human form, is what this restaurant” is about, Menegoni proclaimed modestly to the crowd gathered around the bar — with fresh sangria and sake made with bitters and blends from Shutesbury’s Botanica — as well as Mount Warner wines and local-hops Stoneman beer.

“And all of the people here who are helping us and supporting us, with their products and wisdom their on other levels, not just restaurant, but production of food, growing food, and working with it from the dirt to the compost, back to the dirt and the compost and continuing the cycle,” added the bearded Menegoni, for whom cooking with local ingredients is “the morally right thing to do.”

Several local farmers turned out along with their spouses. Upinngil’s Clifford and Sorrel Hatch saw their fontina and challerhocker cheeses offered as appetizers along with freshly fried Upinnzellar. Dancing Bear Farm’s Tom Ashley and his Leyden neighbor, Lynette Snedeker of Frizzell Hill goat farm, got to sample how their fresh figs and ground goat cheese, respectively, were incorporated in a round of pizzas that kept emerging from the kitchen. Sunderland Thomas Farm’s goat cheese and locally foraged lobster mushrooms and other local cheeses and vegetables were also among the toppings sampled.

“It makes me just, like, smile,” said Clifford Hatch, standing by as diners sampled his cheeses.

Neighboring Second Street Bakery, which produces the flatbreads for the pizzas that have been a feature of Great Falls Harvest’s menu, was using locally produced whole-wheat flour from Northfield’s Four Star Farms instead of conventional flour, said bakery co-owner Laura Puchalski.

“It’s a perfect chain,” Puchalski told CISA Local Hero Program Manager Devon Whitney-Deal, who’s trying to iron out delivery details between the bakery and local farms. “It’s why we do what we do, because our customers are excited. It’s like when the blueberries are first coming in from my mom’s bushes, or we’re getting local peaches from Clarkdale, and we stand there all day with drippy arms cutting them up. It’s a whole different feeling. It totally changes our whole job, and that’s pretty exciting.”

CISA’s restaurant events, which last year included a “farm trivia night” at Taylor’s Tavern and will include scraps-and-leftovers meal on Sunday at Northampton’s Bistro les Gras and a “meet three Franklin County women in agriculture” dinner at Belly of the Beast restaurant in Northampton on Wednesday, Sept. 6, are aimed at showcasing the interconnected roles played by area farmers and chefs, as well as by CISA in linking and promoting them, Whitney-Deal said.

The Deerfield-based organization has 74 restaurants among its 430-plus members in the Pioneer Valley.

“We want to share a message of where our food is coming from, and that you should take pause, when you’re making a buying decision in a retail store, or thinking about whether to buy at a big-box chain versus a farmers market, and maybe sway that decision,” she said.

Aja Talarico, who organized the Turners Falls event, added that chefs sometimes don’t always know what’s available from local farmers just ahead in the growing season, and that the events also serve as to help them network about what’s possible while stirring the imagination of their customers about how to prepare some of the produce and other foods that are available.

“Sadly, right now is the time of year when everything’s slow,” admitted Menegoni’s partner in the restaurant and beyond, Bridget Chaffee. “That’s kind of funny, because everything’s local, so it’s a good excuse to showcase it all. We have some very loyal customers who say almost every time they come in that they come in because of our practices. But some people just stumble upon the fact it’s kind of an extra bonus.”

Menegoni, who ended the dinner with a cheesecake made of Thomas Farm goat cheese, Dancing Bear figs and a few of his neighbor’s peaches, said the biggest obstacle for chefs is that it takes time and energy.

“You have to have a conversation with farmer or producer to set that up, and lot of smaller farmers don’t necessarily have the ability to deliver,” he said. “If you get something from a distributor, you’re getting things that have been processed to a point, whereas when I get things right from my garden, I pull a whole bunch radishes and I have to snip the root and snip the greens. There’s a whole lot more processing. If you have the staff, it becomes easier, but in a smaller place, you kind of have to love it, and want to do it.”

The after-dinner treat, on which the couple has been working for three of the restaurant’s four years, is an Avenue A market where they plan, as early as this fall, to sell prepared lunches as well as local farm products.